Planning a trip to Door County with kids

The moment I heard Door County, Wisconsin described as ‘the Cape Cod of the Midwest’, this family-friendly destination made perfect sense to me. Despite the fact that Lake Michigan served as the ‘ocean’ in this comparison, the description was spot-on. Door County, the narrow ‘thumb’-shaped peninsula of Wisconsin, is comprised of scenic shoreline, quaint villages, and rolling farmland. It’s Cape Cod with a Midwestern style that delights.

Door County is the perfect weekend or week-long escape for families with kids within a day’s drive. What you get: plenty of shoreline, ample boating and fishing opportunities, camping, biking and hiking, and dining galore. This is a vacation destination just waiting for you to make it your own, whether you’re looking for art and culture, R&R, or outdoor recreation.

What to do in Door County with kids:

In addition to the 53 public beaches along its 300 miles of shoreline and cherry picking in July or August (check out the tart cherry selection at Orchard Country Winery and Market), Door County offers a multitude of turn-key outdoor offerings. What do I mean by ‘turn-key’? Nothing is at ‘expert’ level, unless you count the fishing, which is indeed impressive. Instead, families have the opportunity to do a little of everything.

Take a trolley tour with Door County Trolley:

Door County Trolley should be your first stop. They offer a multitude of trolley tours of the area, but their narrated scenic tour started it all, and gives you a great overview of the area. It’s $18.95 for adults and $13.95 for kids, and or guide and driver was highly entertaining and fun. You’ll get an overview of the history of Door County and see the main views and highlights, which will help you know what you want to go back and see during the rest of your stay.

For the grown ups: they also have a Murder and Mayhem tour, which highlights all the places of past crime on the peninsula, and a wine, spirits and brews tour, which includes wine tastings at multiple stops.

Hiking and biking:

Head to the biggest and brightest of Door County’s five state parks, Peninsula State Park. Grab a hiking and biking map at the entrance, or, if you know you’ll want to bike, rent at the entrance to the park at Edge of the Park. You can ride the perimeter of the park on paved road (noting that there will be traffic in summer), or, if you have older kids eager to try their hand at some single track, take some of the interior trails (see the map for designated biking trails).

If you’re hiking, a good option is the two-mile Sentinel Trail in Peninsula State Park. There are a number of other trails at your disposal too, which are fairly short in length but can be done in tandem or looped for a longer mileage. There are also 12 preserves in Door County with hiking trails; it’s a very progressive county when it comes to land conservation. You won’t find the development that you encounter at destinations like the Wisconsin Dells, for instance.

We hiked for about an hour at The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, a not-for-profit land sanctuary that aims to educate on land conservation efforts as much as it provides an opportunity for hiking. Start that the new and impressive visitor’s center at 8166 Highway 57, and opt for either a guided tour (multiple per day in the summer season) or a self-guided hike through the forests and swales (bodies of water). Either way, it’s $5 for adults and free for kids (up to age 18). The guided tour will be led by an enthusiastic member of the sanctuary, and I know that I personally learned a lot about the local ecology. That said, both the guided and self-led tour option includes a visit to the range lights (like lighthouses) with an interior tour. Combine as many of the mile or so loops as you’d like to create the hike for you. The first 1/3 mile from the visitor center to the ranger lights that mark the official start to the sanctuary is boardwalk, accessible for all.

Go cheese tasting:

Head to Wisconsin Cheese Masters and Door Artisan Cheese Company for samples of the best, then buy a few offerings to add to a picnic to enjoy on the lake or bay.

In Door County without the kids? Ask for the premium wine tasting flight at Harbor Ridge Winery, located adjacent to Wisconsin Cheese Masters. This boutique winery also offers a more basic tasting, but you’ll want to upgrade (on our visit, it was only a difference of a couple bucks). The difference: the premium tasting included cabs, pinot noirs and cab blancs made on-site from grapes curated from Walla Walla Washington and California. The more basic tasting included more sweet wines and fruit wines made from orchard fruits on-site. It depends on taste, but if you prefer a drier (grape) wine, you’ll want the premium.

Kayak the bay, lake or inland lakes:

Door County Kayak Tours is a locally-owned and operated kayaking company that’s always expanding to new outdoor pursuits. They offer several routes for kayaking around the Green Bay or lake side of the peninsula and are always flexible. When bad weather kept us from the lake, we re-routed (rather than needing to cancel) and enjoyed an exceptional paddle through the Mud Lake State Natural Area instead. A new perspective is had at water-level, and other tours operated by Gravity Trails offer views of shipwrecks in the lake, watery caves, and more.

Visit lighthouses:

Door County has an entire lighthouse trail of eleven lighthouses. The trolley company will show you around on their lighthouse tour, should you be so inclined, and several boat operations will show you lighthouses from the water, but you can also pick and choose favorites to see by car and on foot (or tractor…stay tuned for that story). It’s easy to see Eagle Buff lighthouse, since it’s located in Peninsula State Park, but Cana Island Lighthouse is a fan favorite because of its unique watery approach. Located in Baileys Harbor, Cana Island is indeed on its own tiny island. To get there, park at the parking area and cross the shallow causeway either by foot (wading in knee-deep water a matter of yards) or take the free tractor transportation (pulling a wagon you can ride in). Yes, it’s as fun and unique as it sounds. At the light, climb the steep steps (must be 36 inches) to the top for amazing views.

Where to eat in Door County with kids:

Breakfast at White Gull Inn: Don’t miss this stop. Operating in Fish Creek since the 1800s, White Gull Inn is a mainstay. Someone in your party must try the cherry stuffed French Toast (winner of Good Morning America’s Best Breakfast award), but everything else is equally wonderful. They also do a fish boil at this location, and though we tried a fish boil elsewhere, I’m told the White Gull Inn’s is comparable, with one exception (more on that in a minute).

Wilson’s Restaurant in Ephraim: Wilson’s has been in operation for the last 114 years, and its going strong. Located right on the water, you can expect long lines and waits here in summer, but in the shoulder season, it’s easy to get a table. They’re known for their ice cream and homemade root beer, but their burgers are amazing, too. Come for the food, but stay for the ambiance, which is still stuck in the 1950s. Alternative pick: if you just want ice cream, head to Door County Ice Cream Factory in the town general store (dating back to 1912).

The Cookery: If you want an inventive and interesting (and somewhat surprising menu), come to The Cookery in Fish Creek. Yes, they have traditional whitefish chowder (they’re known for it) and Door County cherry salad (everyone seems to have this in the Door), but they also have vegetarian grain bowls and very flavorful salads amid their comfort food offerings. Like most businesses in the Door, The Cookery is family owned and operated.

Fish boil: A tradition of Door County dating back to the early logging and fishing era, a traditional fish boil is a good way to feed a crowd. They’re still offered at locations such as White Gull Inn (see above) or at The Old Post Office, where we experienced one. What happens: guests first circle around a wood-burning campfire upon which a huge cauldron of water is boiling. Potatoes and onions are added (White Gull Inn does not add onions, a significant difference), and then whitefish. After the whitefish is added, kerosene is added, creating a huge ball of fire and smoke that impresses the audience and serves to burn/boil off the oily top layer of the water. The fish, potatoes, onions, and usually cole slaw is served buffet-style, and the whitefish lacks that ‘fishy’ taste you’d expect, since the fish oils are burnt off in the final burning of the oil. Cool, right? It’s a fun affair that’s as much about the experience as it is about the meal.

Without the kids? Head to happy hour! In addition to the premium flight at Harbor Ridge Winery, the Liberty Taproom in Egg Harbor and Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay are good picks. Pair any of these options with gallery hopping from Plum Bottom Gallery to Edgewood Orchard Galleries and Turtle Ridge Gallery and you have yourselves a perfect kid-free afternoon and evening.

Where to stay:

On the water. With a kitchen. That’s really the only criteria in my book, with kids. Why? Being lakefront (or bayfront…Door County has Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other) is the main draw for kids. And most Door County lodging is in a rural setting, apart from downtown areas, so you’ll want to grocery shop before arriving, and make most meals in-house, to avoid a lot of driving.

There are many options that fit this bill, from older and a bit dated, and most are within 15 minutes of one another in the various towns dotting Door County. I stayed at Sand Bay Beach Resort in Sturgeon Bay for under $200/night in summer, which was an economic choice that provided spacious rooms with kitchenettes (no stove or oven) and communal BBQs on the water, plus an indoor pool and hot tub. However, it is dated and about 15-20 minutes’ drive from the main villages of Egg Harbor and Sister Bay you’ll likely frequent. I also toured the Bay Shore Inn, which offers more upscale amenities.

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Disclosure: I experienced Door County at the invitation of the tourism board, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler.